Bygones of Monroe:
John Monteith And The Formation Of Monroe Presbyterian Church
Last Sunday you were privileged to hear an excellent sermon dealing with the subject OVERCOMING ANXIETY. Rev. Simpson made it evident that in knowing the truth one can overcome anxiety.
I know that there is some anxiety existent here today. There are many of you wondering whether or not I am going to preach a sermon. Only if I tell the truth can I dispel your anxiety so I will simply state “I am not going to preach”… It takes very little self-analysis to determine that I am not capable of it for that is a professional’s job. So please relax and cast all anxiety to one side.
One of the things all of us are interested in are the stories told us by our parents of the people and conditions that existed when they were young. We Americans are inventive and adventure-loving. We like to meet problems squarely, face-to-face, and then overcome them. Whether it was a question of protections against the British or the Indians 140 years ago here in Monroe, or whether it is a problem of stemming the advance of communism to some distant part of the world today, Americans have, and are finding, a way to combat such problems.
The early settlers of Monroe had many such questions before them, and after that of survival had been solved, it was only natural that they turned to thoughts of peace, of God, and of religious education for their children.
In the Spring of 1816, just three years after the River Raisin Massacre, John Monteith arrived in Detroit. Monteith was severely shocked by what he saw there. Soldiers and fur-traders had set the pace for years. Monteith had never imagined such immorality or depravity. Morals were at such a low level that a missionary by the name of Joe Badger, who had visited Detroit not long before, reported that he couldn’t find a single Christian.
Monteith had been met and welcomed by a Catholic priest, Father Richard. Though of different religious views their theological views were identical. A firm friendship developed in which they were closely associated in many kinds of social improvements.
VISIT TO MONROE
How Monteith became interested in River Raisin (as Monroe was then known as) is not known. We can but assume that word of our immorality had not escaped to Detroit, but that Monteith had been invited to visit here by some farseeing resident.
Monteith first talked here in River Raisin on Friday, July 12th, 1816, just 137 years last month. From here he left for similar engagements at Fort Meigs (Perrysburg, Ohio) and Port Lawrence (Toledo, Ohio). He alternated between these three places from time to time, traveling the rugged terrain on horseback. Monteith was finally ordained and licensed to preach by the New Brunswick Presbytery just one year later (May 12th, 1817).
An appeal by him to the Board of Mission brought a licensed preacher by the name of Moses Hunter. After his arrival in Detroit, December 17th, 1819, he alternated between River Raisin and Fort Meigs for about six months.
FORMATION OF MONROE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
It was on January 12, 1820, that these two ministers met in conference here in Monroe; (for so we were named in 1817 by proclamation of Governor Woodbridge). This change of name to Monroe had been accomplished through a recommendation signed by John Anderson and Wolcott Lawrence, both founders of our Presbyterian Church.
At this conference were people interested in the establishment of a new church. This meeting was held at Col. Johnson’s Brick House at the southwest corner of Front and Washington Street (where the First National Bank now stands). This brick house was the first built in this part of town. It was built in 1818, the same year he was married to Elizabeth Dishrow by John Monteith, the so-called “Bishop of Detroit”. Mrs. Johnson was one of the 20 founders of our church. Oliver Johnson, who became one of the original founders of the Republican Party at Jackson, Michigan, was a fur-trader. He remodeled this brick home in 1825 so that his business could be carried on there. He built a house on a lot just East of the Court House occupying it until 1868. It is the house that Mrs. Phinney now lives in.
On the day following the meeting at Col. Johnson’s Brick House, a meeting was held at the old yellow-log Court House which stood on the area that might be called the front lawn of this church. The Presbyterian Church was officially organized. Thus we became, January 18, 1820, the first Protestant church in Michigan.
The charter members of which there were twenty, consisted of Congregationalists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists, as well as Presbyterians.
OLD YELLOW-LOG COURT HOUSE
It is interesting to note that this old log cabin that mothered our young church was a two-story affair of hewed logs, having a clapboard roof. The downstairs had a hall through its center with a jail on one side and sheriff’s family quarters on the other. The upstairs was a courtroom which was also used for school and church affairs. It had been constructed in 1818.
Two weeks after our organization meeting Monteith preached in Monroe for the first time. He administered communion to 22 people and baptized one. On May 21st he ordained two elders, Jos. Farrington and Wolcott Lawrence. Wolcott and Caroline Lawrence, in December 1817, had become the parents of the first white child born in Monroe.
Shortly afterward Oliver Johnson and Henry Dishrow were elected elders. Henry Dishrow was a civil engineer and can be rightfully called Monroe’s first city engineer for in 1817 he drew the first map of Monroe laying it out in streets and plats down to Lake Erie. It is amusing to note that portions of the map that we know to be marshland were designated as “Wet Pasture”.
In June of 1820 a Sunday School was organized. They had ambitions for this was but 6 months after the church was organized. Monroe, at that time, had a population of some 400; the entire county having but 1,881, and Michigan Territory but 8,896. Macomb Street boasted of a foot bridge over the river whereas Monroe Street had a toll bridge over the River Au Raisins. This last was operated by some the more enterprising settlers, and was large enough to permit wagons to cross. Such wagons as were used had high wheels of the French type to keep them from bogging in the marshy ground around Monroe.
Getting back to this newly organized Sunday School it is interesting to observe that John Anderson (who later became an elder of our church) was its president. Colonel Anderson as he was known, for he was so commissioned during the war by Gen. Hull, had been one of the few men marked by Chief Tecumseh for certain death. He had maintained a Trading Post on the Northeast corner of Macomb and East Elm Streets. It was here during the River Raisin Massacre that Mrs. Anderson, seeing the Indians approaching, had broken open the casks of whiskey in their store. The Indians managed to lap up enough from the floor to become half-crazed and attempt to kill her. She averted the attempt by calling to them, “Shame, so many Indians to fight one squaw”. They left her unharmed.
To resume the Sunday School story, two Catholics, Francis Navarre and Gabriel Godfroy, were elected vice-presidents. The secretary was Charles Noble; the treasurer was Wolcott Lawrence; and the directors were; Oliver Johnson, Joseph Farrington, Sam Felt, and Henry Dishrow.
In time, when other provisions had been made, the Roman Catholics withdrew, and still later the Lutheran children followed them.
Perhaps it can be said that our Presbyterian church, like Topsy, just grew, and grew, and grew. We continued to meet at the Yellow-Log Court House, and in the various homes too. Then in 1832 the congregation purchased a lot on the southwest corner of Cass and First Streets (where the Zion Lutheran School now stands) and in that same year built a small brick church facing First Street, that seated near 200 people.
SECOND CHURCH PROPERTY
We continued to grow. Oliver Johnson (one of the elders) purchased from Joseph Loranger, the present church property and deeded it to the church November 28, 1845 for the sum of one dollar.
Our present church house was dedicated February 15, 1848, the total membership then being but 203. Originally, at the time of dedication, these windows were of clear glass, on the outside of which were green shutters. Our steeple was of wood. Our doorway faced the square on the north side and opened into a vestibule. This vestibule had two doors opening from it into the church. The choir was over that vestibule, and pulpit was opposite it at the same and it now stands.
The pews were along the east and west walls and in the center, and the two aisles separating these three groups of pews were carpeted. The pews had wooden doors, and our members sat on red cushions. They probably sat on their hands too for I note that the church was heated by a number of stoves.
All walls were painted grey and white. There was a chandelier in the center of the ceiling. In the basement was a Sunday School with an entrance on Washington Street. Its floors were of wood and its walls were plastered.
It was during these times that the public square out in front of our church was the focal point of all community activity. It was out there that Monroe men boarded trains for the wars; that children played soldier and Indian after hearing of Custer’s Indian battles. It was there too that speeches were given and bonfires built at election time. President Taft sat out there while Mrs. Custer drew the flags unveiling the equestrian statue that honored her gallant husband. Up to this last event, the square had been a public grazing ground. Dairy’s weren’t in existence in those days therefore it was common practice for many families to own their own cows. Each morning the family cow was driven down to the square for grazing, and each night it was headed for home and chore of milking. It was only after the cows became a menace to increasing traffic and churchgoers that an ordinance was passed prohibiting grazing on the public square. Fortunate are we this muggy morning that we won’t have to fight our way through a herd of cows as we leave the church.
It is also mentioned in early Monroe history that a town pump existed on the Northeast corner of the square. The present drinking fountain over near the Stoner-Kemmerling building probably is its modern replacement, for it is near the location of the old one. This old town pump was once used as a whipping post, for it is recorded that a thief was once caught in Dishrow’s store and was punished with a public whipping. This seems to be the only instance of its use.
Legend has it that our church bells contain silver melted from the family silver and coins donated by our church ladies some 100 years ago. Then as now, the ladies of the church saw to it that the church was never long in need.
ORGAN AND CARPET
Our first organ was placed in use just before the Christmas of 1962. Its cost was $1100; that was quite a bit of money in those days for that was before inflation. Seven years later (Nov. 1869) our chapel was dedicated. The small front room upstairs was used as a nursery and as a kitchen for the Ladies Aid Society. It contained a service of heavy iron-china, steel-bladed knives, tin teaspoons, and 3 tined forks. There were frosted windows in the East and West sides of the chapel, and the present large stained-glass windows in the South. It was 1874 before the chapel was connected to the church.
Our progress from that point on can be well imagined by anyone of you. We have progressed as Monroe has progressed, for the officers of the church have been men of vision and energy. In the short span of 133 years the history of our parish has been one that can be shown with pride. Through those years our members have taken prominent parts in city, county, state, national, and international affairs. This very building we worship in has stood for 105 years, a symbol of a useful past. We have a rich history behind us, because our members have been willing to serve their church and their community. I pray that we too will be willing to serve our church and our community. Then it may be said in the future that we too contributed to a rich heritage.
(August 1953, Lawrence A. Frost Collection)